“Monsters don’t exist”

“Monsters don’t exist”

Maastricht research into the rights of children on the West Bank, of Palestinian children and Israeli settlers’ children

22-11-2023 · Science

What is it like for a child to grow up on the West Bank? Researcher Marieke Hopman asked Palestinian children and children of Israeli settlers. “So many of them have panic attacks and nightmares.”

Doing this interview? Marieke Hopman was in two minds about it. She does research into the rights of children on the West Bank, of Palestinian children and Israeli settlers’ children. “It’s such a sensitive issue, and anything you say can have repercussions. Especially now that the conflict between the Palestinians and the Israelis in Gaza has flared up in all its intensity. Violence has also intensified on the West Bank, as the largest Palestinian territory is called in English. Many Palestinian children there have been killed this year, the counter now stands at 94. In addition, more children are in Israeli jails, and parents are not allowed to visit them.”

Hopman, originally a philosopher and lecturer at the Faculty of Law, is the first researcher to focus on children’s rights in unrecognised states, such as Palestine. She previously did similar research in the Western Sahara and in Somaliland. In unrecognised states, international law does not apply and the UN does not - or does not sufficiently - monitor observance of (in this case) children’s rights.

She was doing fieldwork on the West Bank last spring. Just like in other conflict areas, she allows herself to be led in these case studies by the stories children tell. “We speak to children on the street, ask permission from parents, and arrange a time to meet for a chat. In the interview, we ask children what they think the problem is. What rights do they feel are being breached?”

Football training

Palestinian children came up with stories that fall under the right to play. “A boy of 15, who lives in a refugee camp, for example, said that he often can’t play football. Or rather, attend football practice. The latter is done outside the camp, while entry into and departure out of the camp is monitored by Israeli guards. All too often, due to local conflicts, the military closes the camp. Children are confronted with the associated violence.”

Play stimulates imagination, and this is also where Palestinian children feel limited. “Much of what happens on the West Bank is linked to the conflict with the Israelis. So, if children sing a song at school, it’s about the occupation. Children cannot fully develop in freedom.”

Hopman works together with Birzeit University, where a group of master’s students are helping to interview children. She also taught there about children’s rights.


University collaboration is not a part of the other project, in which Hopman interviewed children from Israeli settlers. “These are strictly religious families, often with many children, who – according to international law and sometimes also according to Israeli law – live illegally on the West Bank. Some travel there at nighttime and build temporary homes, which are sometimes torn down with a bulldozer, and sometimes they are not.”

Besides the fact that living in the Palestinian area is cheaper than in Israel, settlers are proud to sacrifice themselves. “In their words, they form the frontline of the conflict with the Palestinians on the West Bank. They are prepared to receive the first blows, so that Israel remains safe. In doing so, they are also prepared to expose their children to violence.”

Psychological help

Hopman heard this reflected in the children’s stories, touching on the right to be protected against violence. “Sometimes, Palestinians attack families in their settlements. Houses are set on fire, sometimes with the people inside burning alive. Settlers consciously choose to live in a hostile environment and send their children to school in a bus with bulletproof windows.”

Many children grow up in fear, says Hopman, who – as a cultural anthropologist – stayed in two settlements for a few weeks. They are mainly small, cosy villages with a synagogue, a small supermarket and a playground, surrounded by a fence. “The children are scared of ‘Arabs’, as they themselves say. A strikingly large number of them have panic attacks and nightmares. The right to mental health is at stake here. Their parents tell them that they must be strong, otherwise the Palestinians will win. This is about a higher purpose, the continued existence of the Jewish state. At the same time, paradoxically, the children’s well-being is a primary concern in these communities. As is apparent from the available psychological help.”


Hopman has faced considerable criticism for her research on Israeli settler children, including within academic circles. “Some colleagues argue that my research is unethical, even though it was approved by the UM Ethics Review Committee. The argument is that I’m providing a platform for children who might one day become murderers. They also question the goal of my research – am I suggesting that the settlers need more protection, that more Israeli soldiers should be deployed to the West Bank? But you could also conclude that it’s too unsafe for children there, and the families should relocate.”

All children have rights, says Hopman, “including the settlers’ children, but we’re not allowed to discuss that. It’s a taboo. Recently, during a UN meeting, I mentioned these children, and there was complete silence. Nobody had thought about this group. I was scared that they would tell me off, but my remark was regarded as an eye-opener.”

Her research is about all children, she says. “Look at what is happening in Gaza now, where thousands of children have already been killed. Imagine how Palestinian toddlers are lying under the rubble for days, without food or water, all alone. Sometimes they may be saved from a bombed building; sometimes they may die alone. But also how fearful the Israeli children must feel who have been taken hostage by Hamas. Children as young as three years.”

Philosopher Kant

In the news coverage, but also in discussions, Hopman sees how black-and-white thinking holds sway over the nuances. “Palestinians and Israelis sometimes portray each other as monsters. In the Middle East but also in our country, we no longer try to understand why the different parties behave as they do, what the underlying reasons and ideas are. People hardly listen to each other. Only when we do, can we really change things.”

But justice is never that black and white, she says. “It’s extremely complex, especially if you list the many injustices  inflicted on both sides, over several decades. We now have to think of the children. What are we going to teach them, how will we educate them? How can we ensure that they grow up safely?”

She paraphrases the German philosopher Immanuel Kant: “Children do not choose to be born. If you have chosen to bring them into this world, it is up to you to make them as happy as possible, to ensure that they can develop themselves freely.”

And no, you can’t brush aside all the injustice. “But let’s think about a way to process the past and to prevent injustice from happening again. That would be in the best interest of all children, but also of adults, of course.”

While doing so, according to Hopman, we should keep in mind that “monsters don’t exist”.

Photo: Esther Hertog

Categories: news_top, Science
Tags: West Bank,Gaza,conflict,childrens'rights,Israeli settlers,refugee camp,Israel,Palestine

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